|Faith and Life|
|By Roland S. Süssmann|
“Zochreinu LeChaim – Remember us for life, Oh King Who loves everything that lives, and by Your grace inscribe us in the Book of Life, Oh living G-d!” This summarizes the main thrust, the very essence of all our prayers that we recite, chant and say from the depths of beings during the period known as the “Days of Awe”, the Yamim Noraim, which run from Rosh Hashanah until Hoshanah Rabba. This year as ever we are going to question ourselves, review the year, draw up a balance sheet of our good and bad deeds and ask the Almighty to grant our requests, of which the most important is to grant us life and good health.
Nevertheless, each year these solemn occasions come under a particular sign. To guide us in our thoughts on the threshold of the year 5769 we met with Rav Israel Meir Lau, Chief Rabbi of Tel-Aviv and former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel. We asked him to tell us how we should approach this special period.
In your opinion, what is the main element that characterizes this time and what should be our main preoccupation?
We all of course have worries on the personal, family and professional levels. However, after mature reflection, I believe that what unfortunately most characterizes our present time and is the central point of our concerns is the disdain for life in the face of the sanctity of human life. Last year was the high water mark of disdain for life, much more so than in the past. To illustrate my theme, let me give you some examples that will show how total indifference has set in. In 1949, a few months after the rebirth of the State, a murder took place in Gan Meir, a park in Tel-Aviv, where a couple sitting on a bench were attacked and the young man killed. This unusual happening made the newspapers (which in those days were four pages on weekdays and eight in a Friday) for a year and a half! I was then 11 years old, 12 at the time of the trial and I remember the names of the victim, the killer, the prosecutor, the lawyer and Judge Benjamini, after whom a street has been named in Tel-Aviv. You will ask me why, 60 years later, all this is so present in my memory. The answer is that at that time the fact that a Jew killed another Jew sent a shock wave across the country. “Several months after the end of the War of Independence, in which we lost 6,000 people, and less than five years after the end of the Shoah, in which we lost 6,000,000 of our brethren, how was it possible that one Jew could kill another Jew?” That was why the press talked about it for so long. In the end, it turned out that the killer was mentally ill, a survivor of the Shoah. He finished his life not in prison but in a psychiatric hospital. However, the shock of that murder on the population was very great. When I was Chief Rabbi of Israel there was a murder in Rehovot, where a man stabbed his wife to death. Following that incident I was asked to attend a session at the Knesset. There were present the Attorney General, the Chief of Police, the head of the Criminal Investigations Department and the heads of all the women’s organizations in Israel. The organizers asked me to speak about the sanctity of life and saving family life. This poor victim was the eighteenth woman killed by a family member, which also explained this meeting. Before starting my speech, I asked if among the 150 persons present (policemen, social workers, members of parliament and others), everyone involved in what had happened, anyone could name the last person to have been murdered by her partner and where that had happened. No one – not a single hand was raised! I told them, “It was Miri Difani, murdered by husband by 26 stab wounds with a knife, in Rehovot three weeks ago!” Then I asked that those who remembered the murder in Gan Meir raise their hand! - Fifty hands were raised! A sad incident from 50 years ago was alive in everyone’s memory, while the drama that had taken place just three weeks earlier was already forgotten. That is how disdain for live has gradually taken hold, in both Israeli society and in the Jewish world in general.
How did you know the name of the victim?
Simply because I had done my work. As Chief Rabbi of Israel I had decided to look into each murder that takes place within the family. It was first and foremost a matter of seeing whether the victim had asked us for help, and if, because of our bureaucracy we failed to provide that help. In the case of Miri Difani, that was happily not the case, though at the police there were lots of reports that she had come to lodge complaints that her husband was violent and threatened to kill her.
This past July 30th, in Bat Yam a killer from the Israeli mafia mistakenly murdered a mother of three children in front of her husband and their children. The next day, when the murderer was brought to court still with blood stains from his victim on his shirt, the judge asked him if he regretted his actions, he replied, “A bit”. But the seriousness of this incident lies in the fact that this horror took place in broad daylight in front of hundreds of witnesses sitting in the surrounding cafes and no one budged when he approached the family to murder this poor woman with 32 stab wounds to her face and chest!
We speak of Rosh Hashanah and we draw up a balance sheet of the past year, and I can tell you that during the year 400 people have died here in Israel on the roads, purely through negligence, a lack of responsibility and on account of growing violence. We are not up against terrorism, this is not a tractor in Jerusalem, a Kassam on Sderot or a Katyusha missile on Kiryat Shmonah. No, these people lost their lives in the general indifference to the value of life. This comes from a culture of arrogance that says, “This will only happen to others”, and as a result of which we believe we run no risk by running a red light, by not stopping at a pedestrian crossing or crossing a solid white line. Road behavior shows up how people behave in life and the respect or lack of it for others, especially within the family and one’s immediate environment. The result is that the value of life is reduced to very little.
How do you explain this development?
There can be no doubt that this situation is influenced by the lack of belief in the fact that after our death our soul passes on into the world to come. We will then be called to account and there will be reward and punishment, two concepts very far from the way people think. That is because we believe less and less in the eternity of the soul, placed in us directly by the Almighty, and we adopt an entirely nihilist attitude. “Eat, drink, for tomorrow we shall die, and afterwards there will be nothing, a total void! No tomorrow after death”. However, everyone knows that these slogans do not correspond with reality and that in fact there does exist a tomorrow after 120. The one who on Rosh Hashanah says, “Today is the anniversary of the creation of the world, today G-d calls before his court all the creatures on earth, as His children, as His servants”, and adds, “…You note what we do, You record it and You apply Your seal. You remember forgotten actions, You open the book of history where what happened gets announced by itself and every action is signed by the hand of its author,” ending by saying, “Today on Rosh Hashanah You decide, and on Yom Kippur You make an irrevocable decision, who will live and who will die”; this person knows that tomorrow he will have to explain himself before the King of Kings. He also knows that by not caring for the life of his neighbor, he is directly harming his soul, that part of the person directly infused by G-d Himself. He thus has a sense of the sanctity of life and will accept responsibility and not harm himself, whether through negligence or, worse, through indifference. Do we not say every day in our prayers, “Almighty, the soul you have given us is pure. You created it, You have molded it and You have infused it into me. You keep it within me and you will take it back from me…” We are not Darwinists, we are believers. And the further we are from faith, which happens from generation to generation, the more human life loses its value and will become increasingly cheap. This idea is not new nor have I invented it. It was Abraham who was the first to express this idea when he was questioned about why he hid that Sarah was his wife and had pretended she was his sister, “…the fear of G-d is not to be found in this country and they will kill me on account of my wife” (Gen. 20:11). The patriarch Abraham was thus the first to make a direct connection between the absence of faith and fear of G-d and murder, the disdain for life.
Everything you have just said applies to believers and those who practice their religion. But what about our non-believing coreligionists?
Above all it’s a matter of education and not of propaganda. There are no slogans, no advertising, no video clips that can help someone progress in faith. In fact, today, both in Israel and in the whole world, it is in crisis. But in parallel with developing education, people must be aware how serious the situation is. As usual, to illustrate what I am saying, I will provide an actual example. To do so I must tell you what I always carry in the pocket of my shirt (except on Shabbat), in addition to my identity card, my driving license and my military service booklet confirming that I have completed my military duty of 25 years of “miluim”, reserve duty, even though as Chief Rabbi, according to the law, I could have avoided it. It’s a small cutting from the newspaper, about 10 cm square, dated February 10, 2007, 30 Shevat 5767, which says, “Every day 18,000 children die of hunger in the world”, which means almost 1,000 an hour. This statement was made by the head of the Food Department of the UN, Mr. James Morris, who was completing his time in that position. He also said that 850 million people go to bed every night on an empty stomach. The leading country is India, the second is China. This is not a tsunami, an earthquake, an epidemic or an atomic bomb, let alone the First or Second World War. This is a situation we could change with just a bit of good will, because with a few hours air flight it is certainly possible to supply a bit of food and gradually to end the deaths of 18,000 children per day. But as its wont, the world knows but stays silent! I keep this cutting to read in public each time I feel it is necessary. The last time was at the March of the Living at Auschwitz, where all the world’s press was present. I read it out to tell the world that if we tolerate such a situation, it means that in fact we have learnt nothing from the Shoah. Just as at that time, now the world knows and does nothing to save the lives of these unhappy children. This is not a war that needs to be started, there is no enemy to vanquish, we must extricate ourselves from this comfortable apathy to which we have become accustomed, feel concerned about what happens to our neighbor, and face up to our responsibilities as humans by breaking away from the general indifference that characterizes our time. This is particularly well illustrated by the fact that this news item recounting that almost 1,000 children die an hour appeared in an Israeli daily newspaper in a short piece on page 21! That means that on that day there were 20 pages of news considered more important than the death of 18,000 children each day. This demonstrates how much the disdain for life is anchored in our society today and to what extent our priorities are wrong. This type of new item should have made the front page and triggered the very next day energetic, international action. Each airline could have made available one aircraft per week to transport food free of charge for these children, made available in turn by the large food chains. Nothing! By the next day this item of news was already forgotten and nowhere in the press has it been mentioned again.
You see, when I attend the Match of the Living at Auschwitz it is certainly as an act of memory, but today my purpose is not to talk solely about the past, but to stress the present, a present in which human life has been totally devalued.
This year again, we will blow the shofar in every synagogue in the world. One of the meanings is “to blow the shofar of our freedom” (Tekah beshofar gadol le’cherutainu). This year we should add a meaning and sound the shofar for life, for our life, to reestablish the value and sanctity of life.
To end, I want to come back to your opening question, which was to know in what way is Rosh Hashanah 5769 special, and I want to tell you that this year more than ever, each and everyone of us must do everything in our power to make respect for life a new priority. We have to understand that if the concept of a link between disdain for life and the absence of faith already existed four thousand years ago, what happened during the Shoah has considerably influenced the situation in which we are today, because then it was shown that the life of another is worthless. Let us not forget that for six years the world was witness to the Final Solution being carried out, and that disturbed absolutely no one. It started with the publication of Mein Kampf, continued with the democratic election of Hitler who had announced what he wanted to do, ending in the passing of the anti-Jewish Nuremberg laws of 1936, which led to the death camps.
I believe the New Year should be marked by individual effort. Each one among us can change, and together we can move things, but to do so we have to understand that the root of success and of optimism is in our faith and in our scriptures.
To end up, could you give us a message and a blessing for the readers of SHALOM, so they can start the New Year well?
My blessing for the New Year that is opening up before us, for our good, is the following. To our brethren who still live in the Diaspora, I wish that they will be able to fulfill the prayer we recite in Birkat Hamazon, the grace after meals. “That the G-d of mercy lead us back with heads held high to our country”. And for our brethren here in Israel, I wish that this prayer should be fulfilled, that they can live “with heads held high in our country”. This will allow us to face with uprightness and pride our Jewish, national, spiritual and ethical responsibility.
I also wish that the new year be influenced by the Hebrew letters that make up its numeric value, 5769: Taf – Shin – Samech – and Tet, each of which is the first letter of the following words, Tachel Shnat Siman Tov (that the year should be under a good sign), and I would add Mazal Tov, good luck for all of Israel. That the Almighty inscribes us for a good year. Ketiva vechatima tova, Amen.